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Why Not to Outsource your Startup (Even If You Can’t Code)

One of my favorite things to do is to help others who are at an earlier stage of the startup journey. I had a lot of false starts before Buffer. I enjoy sharing my lessons from those failed attempts, and I also enjoy getting my mind back into those early days challenges, now that Buffer is almost 5 years old.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had 5 sessions (typically around 30 minutes, in person or via Hangouts) where I’ve tried to help someone. I was surprised to hear the same challenge came up in 3 of the 5, so I thought it might be a worthwhile blog post topic, too.

The thought process of outsourcing your startup

If you’re not technical and can’t code, it’s very natural to think that you can’t progress much with your startup idea unless you find help. Often the first thought is to either find a technical co-founder, or to outsource building the minimum viable product to a firm or a freelancer.

In my experience, both these options are almost always the less optimal approach for succeeding with your startup as quickly as possible.

I honestly believe that building your product yourself is the most optimal and fastest path to creating a successful startup. Here are the 3 main reasons why I think you shouldn’t outsource your startup.

outsource your startup

1. Startup goals and freelancers’ goals are misaligned

The goal of a freelancer or a creative agency or firm is to serve many different clients, and to ultimately make money. Your goal when you have a startup idea is to reach product/market fit and make something that can get traction.

The successful path for a freelancer to reach their goal is very different to the successful path for startup founders to reach product/market fit.

One of the easiest problems for a freelancer to encounter is scope creep of client projects. If the freelancer or agency is setting a fixed price for the project, they need to take many steps to ensure that the scope of the project doesn’t grow beyond what was initially budgeted for. This means that in the beginning, they are going to want to set down a very defined specification of what this project involves. A freelancer’s goal is to make money, and a key ‘tool’ for success is to be quite exhaustive with defining the initial specification for a project, and to avoid changes to the spec along the way.

As a startup, your goal is to reach product/market fit. There’s a great insight Matt Mullenweg once shared that really puts into perspective why as startup founders we should launch as early as possible:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.”

oxygen for ideas

Therefore, the ideal approach for creating a successful startup is to put it out there as soon as possible and then iterate from there based on the new information that comes from usage and from doing customer development.

This is almost completely at odds with the approach most freelancers will want you to take. Not only that, but most freelancers or agencies are building websites for more established or more predictable businesses and they often don’t understand the nature of startups.

It’s not that a contractor or agency is doing it wrong, they’re just optimizing for their most common type of client project: to create a website.

For example, it might be a website for a restaurant, a coffee shop, or a golf club. In the words of Eric Ries, these are ‘known problem, known solution’ situations. We know what a restaurant website should do. It should have a menu, show you where the restaurant is, etc.

With startups, we live in a world of ‘unknown problem, unknown solution’ situations. We don’t know whether our new idea will work. It takes a whole different approach, and I think this is almost always misaligned with the way a freelancer will approach things.

2. It gets you into the wrong mindset of what it takes to get a product off the ground

Very much related to the first challenge, I believe that if you are thinking about outsourcing your startup, you likely already have the wrong mindset about how to create a successful startup.

I’m lucky to have been coding since I was around 12. When I got into startups, I was lucky to have that part of the equation taken care of. What I realized after a few years in the game was that my technical ability blinded me to what it takes to make a successful product. I just kept building, and that’s not the main part of succeeding with a startup.

I think that often if someone is thinking about outsourcing their startup, they’re under the false impression that the key to succeeding with their idea is to get it built.

The idea itself is often way off, and most likely won’t work once you put it out there.

What it takes to create a successful product is eliminating all the unvalidated aspects and finding something that users or customers truly want, that has product/market fit and can get traction. Coding is actually not at all required to achieve this.

product market fit

Especially today, you can create a fully working (albeit potentially somewhat manual) version of your startup using tools such as Wufoo, Unbounce, WordPress, Google Forms, and other things and never have to code at all. You can fill in the gaps with hustling and manual work yourself. It won’t scale, but ironically that is the key to initially growth and understanding what is working and what isn’t.

Without coding at all, I think you can have an early (far from perfect) product and even start to get traction if you iterate and solve the unvalidated aspects of your idea. Once you start to get traction, so many doors will open up for getting help to code the product and make it much more beautiful.

Many decent coders might become wary of hearing “idea people” come along and try to get them to build their startup. On the other hand, a coder might be extremely interested in a startup put together with no code that is getting really good traction. That’s something they can have a big impact on that has already shown huge potential.

3. The founding team should wear every hat

The other belief I have for why you shouldn’t outsource your startup is: the founding team should wear every hat. Here’s why:

  • It gives you the mindset that you can make anything happen, you just need to figure out the ways to do it with your current capabilities
  • You retain full control over all parts of the process and can adapt and iterate super fast
  • When you reach the point of hiring people, you’ll know the difference between someone great and someone not-so-good
  • You’ll have a level of passion across many different areas of the startup. That can more easily help you be great at multiple things as you grow. (It’s hard to hire passion and hard for someone else to thrive in something the founder doesn’t get excited about.)

I highly recommend founders and co-founders do absolutely everything in the beginning. In the early days at Buffer, between the two of us Leo and I did development, design, database and sys admin work, customer support, marketing, and more. I even built the first version of the Android app before we invited Sunil to the team to take it over.

There’s almost nothing we do at Buffer now that myself or Leo haven’t done in the early days of the company. As a result, I get super excited about how far we can take things across all areas of the company, and I can speak on a deep level with anyone in any area.

What to do instead of outsourcing

It might seem counter-intuitive that building the product yourself could be the fastest way to success if you don’t have any coding ability. The thing is, I’m not talking about coding—I’m talking about building your product. In any way that you can. That could mean zero coding, or it could mean picking up things here and there (which is great, too).

I believe you’ll struggle to find a great technical co-founder if all you have is your idea. If you work with a freelancer or agency, it’s unlikely you’ll have a working relationship that lets you cycle through the build-measure-learn loop and iterate towards product/market fit.

build measure learn loop

My recommended approach is to hack it together yourself while you keep meeting technical people in your local startup community. I believe there’s an inflection point where what you have is attractive enough for a technical co-founder to jump on board. If you don’t have a technical co-founder (or someone technical willing to join as first employee), just keep hacking, doing customer development and validating your assumptions to create something that gets traction.

What are your thoughts on creating a startup if you’re not technical? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

  • Justin

    Hi Joel – I think the header for point #1 is misstated: “not misaligned” should be “not aligned” or “misaligned”. Just FYI. I love your blog. You can’t imagine how helpful the posts that you and your team write have been for me with my own startup. Thanks for sharing everything! Best – Justin

    P.S. Buffer, the app, is awesome too :)

    • Hey Justin, thanks so much for pointing that out! That goof is on me and is all fixed up now. :)

  • hsekhon

    Hey Joel! Thanks for sharing this. As a former tech guy I kept pushing myself to learn marketing and business development. To the point that that I was going to go with getting freelancers onboard to develop the MVP. But this has made me rethink this approach. Feels like I should reskill myself for mobile coding. No reason why coding and marketing efforts can’t be pursued by the same person. It might take longer but as you implied realising the right vision may be easier with this approach.

  • Christopher Swenor

    Hey Joel,
    Very well thought out and written. I agree with some of these points, but I built my whole company off of Lean Startup and specifically targeting Early Stage Startups. I believe I am now offering a product that not only is a good option, but is actually the best option for an Early Stage Startup when it comes to product. I am continuously modifying my offering to be better though, and I would love your help making it ever better if you have the time.
    Thanks,
    Chris

  • nickboucart

    Hello Joel,

    I couldn’t agree more. That is exactly the kind of advice I give to the startups I’m coaching.
    Last year, I wrote a piece detailing why I think it is extremely hard to outsource your development as a startup: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140903173730-4287110-6-reasons-why-outsourcing-early-software-product-development-for-a-tech-startup-is-a-tough-one-and-some-tips-on-how-to-deal-with-it Curious to hear your thoughts.

    Nick.

  • Philippe Araujo

    Hey Joel I agree that you should work on your idea and try to validate it. At certain point potential “customers” want to see what it looks like and since the lean startup movement we can see millions of landing page going out without nothing behind. Do you recommend any techniques to fake it then make it?

  • Ivan Siladji

    This is a brilliantly resourceful article. Coincidentally I have been thinking about this topic lately as I am in the early phases of brainstorming for a new tech startup and this will require coding. I decided to go down the learning path of coding and this article has backed that decision up nicely. Your comments that founders and co-founders should be doing absolutely everything in the beginning hit the nail on the head, as much as possible, I totally agree. Thanks for the read.

    Ivan Siladji
    http://www.ivansiladji.com

  • Mohamed Zumry

    Ha ha… I am upside down. i’m improving my tech skills since i left the
    college. i will improve till get confidence on everything. if we know
    what to do even with the code, we no need to rely on anyone.

    -Zumry

    https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=64331545&trk=hp-identity-photo

  • Lokesh Suji

    Well an interesting article and i don’t agree …..does this mean that Start-ups are all about people who can code or the people who can do coding can only launch a start-up or does this mean Start-up = Coding ???? Invariably it seems that people who know coding only have a right to think of a start-up.
    You can always outsource it and yes, you need to have some one on board with you to ensure that you are not being taken for a ride. or you can always hire a tech team to build that product for you. Hope this helps to people who are “ZERO” as far as coding is concerned !!!

    • Hey Lokesh, this is a great point! I totally agree, not all startups have to be about coding at all! Thanks for pointing out this bit of bias we have; I think we can do a better job here in the future!

  • Lokesh Suji

    Free lancing is definitely a Bad Option and I agree completely !

  • Sandy Aulakh

    Thanks for sharing this informative article.

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